Grief is not Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim

Fenced off beaches tell no tales.
Fenced off beaches tell no tales.

Grief is a potent, deeply personal, emotion. It is more powerful than fear and, once experienced, lives in some form or the other throughout a person’s lifetime. A mother or a father who loses a child feels grief like no other.

Grief cannot be stamped out with the heel of an army boot. A sharp command, a flash of khaki green, the glint of a weapon, brute force or the threat of arrest might suppress its manifestation in public. But even in such a state, it exists. It endures. It festers.

There were many mothers and fathers who pawed at their chests in agony as this ache consumed them at the war’s end five years ago. They were helpless in the face of death.

We are programmed to believe we can protect our children from anything. We would die trying. But each time, death cheats us of this imagined privilege. So grief is laced with anger; with a sense of injustice; with a why-me or why-my-child; with a sense of a tale untold.

This narrative isn’t mono-ethnic. You can’t cover a story for twenty years and not see, or acknowledge, that. There is grief in everyone that suffered through the countless air raids, the shelling, the shooting, the bomb blasts, the ambushes, the massacres and the relentless, pointless, endless to-ing and fro-ing between the two sides.

In early May 2009, I visited a Sinhala village in the Anuradhapura district. Nearly every household there had given up a son to the military. Nearly every household was in mourning.

Yes, those TV adverts had been enticing. Joining the military was shown to be a glorious act, perhaps more sanctifying even than joining the clergy. But there was little glory in the bloody end.

And so, with the fighting drawing to a fevered pitch, grief hung over this impoverished village like a dense, grey cloud just before the rains. The cemetery had fresh graves, all of young men. There were white flags, white streamers and white banners with rough, black lettering, wishing the dead eternal peace.

A mother who had lost her son to the fighting the previous week held on to his framed photograph so tightly that her knuckles were white. Her weeping was raw, guttural and intense. The boy had only been sixteen, she said. He had lied to get into the army. Her body writhed as she cried, as she leant against the doorpost and slid to the ground.

I have witnessed the same grief in the eyes of other human beings. I have felt throbbing agony in the vacant stares of Tamil mothers and fathers as they speak of their dead or missing children, regardless of whether they had been LTTE fighters or unarmed civilians. For, what earthly difference could that possibly make to a parent? I have seen how desperately sad these Tamils are, how they have no support to handle their emotions and how they are forced to keep quiet for fear of “stepping out of line”.

I have seen how men and women are picking up the pieces of their lives and moving on but how the pain bubbles on, just beneath the surface—under control but only just.

When many of them left the war zone, they hadn’t had the strength or stamina to drag anything but their weary, battered bodies out. Yet, photographs were non-negotiable. Black-and-white photographs, taken for identity cards; coloured photographs, taken in studios with their artificial potted plants and standardised backdrops; photographs taken on birthdays with mothers, fathers and children beaming joyfully; random photographs taken in gardens or in some part of the house, almost always on special occasions.

Everyone that experienced this war at a range close enough to experience death feels the same grief. Grief has no race, creed or colour. There is no Tamil grief or Sinhala grief or Muslim grief. Tamil grief isn’t more unbearable than Sinhala grief or Muslim grief. Sinhala grief isn’t more unbearable than Tamil grief or Muslim grief. And Muslim grief isn’t more unbearable than Sinhala grief or Tamil grief.

How can it be? Grief is grief. Death is death.

Why, then, does this government insist upon packing loss into separate boxes and giving them ethnic labels? Why does it prescribe how Tamils, Sinhalese or Muslims should grieve when that isn’t their business? Why does it say where you can or cannot light a lamp, where you can or cannot conduct religious rites, where you can or cannot commemorate your dead when it isn’t their prerogative?

The military has encroached into everything else. Why won’t it leave grief alone?

If that woman in Anuradhapura wanted to honour her dead son, she could mobilise her entire village to do so and nobody would bat an eyelid. They could gather at the playground, at the cemetery, at the temple, at the school, anywhere they wished. They could light lamps, scatter flowers, hold religious ceremonies or invoke blessing upon any number of Sinhalese men or women who had died in the war.

Why can’t Tamils do the same?

Five years after the war, politicians have taken ownership of how survivors should remember their dead—how many numbers can congregate and where and when and how. In Jaffna, they have deployed the military to do their bidding.

It is the same military against which there is so much hostility, even five years after the war ended. Now, there will be even more hatred, even more bitterness, even more resentment. No amount of tweeting by Namal Rajapaksa from the hinterlands of the north—no amount of bicycle donations, no amount of road-building—will change that. The gulf is widening. The cycle is beginning again.

Others are waiting in the wings to take advantage of this. Tamil politicians have also taken ownership of grief, for their own reasons, to meet their own agendas and those of others who don’t even live here. They too are prescribing how people should grieve. When politics infiltrates into people’s lives, things lose their original purpose. They become twisted, disfigured and unpleasant. And human beings become pawns. Just look north.

This is the politics of grief in Sri Lanka. But amidst the rhetoric and the lobbying for advantage, real sorrow continues to exist. It goes unaddressed. People are suffering.

You can’t stop that by marching out the army. You can’t achieve something great or beneficial by stamping out a flame lit to the dead. You can’t prescribe how a population should grieve as a means of ensuring that only your own sanitised versions of the war survives. You can’t deny a people the right to their memories, their pain or their loss.

Victory parades won’t make the other story disappear. But you need magnanimity and empathy to see that. This government knows much about road construction but it has no idea how to build bridges.

“Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.”
(The Dhammapada)